With the first day of school just under a month away, the Pinellas County School Board outlined its plans for reopening at a workshop Tuesday.
Parents will have until July 27 at 5 p.m. to select from three schooling options:
Superintendent Mike Grego acknowledged that things can change quickly based on the trajectory of the virus, and said that the school board is ready to pivot on its plans if necessary. Data, statistics and input from the Department of Health will help drive decisions on what school will actually look like when students go back Aug. 12, whether that means in-person learning or online.
“This is an ever-fluid condition. We really don’t know exactly what we’ll be saying 20 days from now and changes are likely going to happen,” he said. “Right now, it behooves us to plan for any and all situations and to continue to monitor numbers and stay in close contact with the department of health. This way, if we have to change directions, we’re prepared.”
While online options were discussed at length during the four-and-a-half-hour meeting, board members talked at length about what in-person learning will look like. In addition to reconfiguring classrooms and staggering lunch periods, extensive daily sanitation measures will be implemented. However, much of the discussion centered on the need for masks, which some board members acknowledged would be challenging for certain student populations and for teachers who may strain their voices by speaking through a face covering all day.
“We’re going to do it to the greatest degree possible,” Grego said of mask wearing. “Is it going to be 100 percent? No.”
Sara O’Toole, managing officer with Pinellas County’s school health services, said that the responsibility for keeping schools safe starts at home.
“If you’re not healthy, don’t come to school,” she said. “We all need to think carefully about the choices we make.”
To that end, families will receive a wellness responsibilities form to sign and send back to school. Parents should monitor their children’s temperature each morning and keep an eye out for symptoms. Teachers are asked to do the same.
Board member Lisa N. Cane raised the question of how far-reaching quarantine orders would extend should someone contract COVID-19 at school.
Dr. Allison Messina, an infectious disease doctor at Johns Hopkins All Childrens’ Hospital who has been working with the school board on reopening plans, said that when contract tracing is done, it’s not about trying to quarantine every single person that the infected individual comes in contact with. It’s about looking for moderate to high risk exposures and using them to guide the decision.
“If you have a person who has COVID and they live at home with their two siblings, absolutely those siblings will be quarantined,” she said. “But you don’t want to quarantine everyone the kid has walked by.”
Other considerations regarding quarantine will include whether everyone in contact with the infected individual was wearing a mask and if social distance practices were being followed, Messina said.
Board members also discussed the issue of what happens if a family decides that online school isn’t working for them, or if a child attending a brick-and-mortar school gets sick and can’t return to the classroom for an extended period of time. Those decisions will be made at the individual school level, Grego said.
“We really do want to be understanding,” he said. “If they decide virtual learning just isn’t working, I don’t want a student to be miserable for nine weeks. We want to be compassionate. We just want to avoid flip flopping from week to week.”
For students opting for virtual learning, associate superintendent for teaching and learning services Kevin Hendrick said that one device will be provided per student and not per family, as was the case in the past. Hot spots are also available for pickup for families who don’t have access to WiFi.
Toward the end of the workshop, board member Nicole M. Carr talked about the high number of emails she’s received from teachers and staff members and she’s worried that not enough focus is being placed on the sacrifices they’re being asked to make.
“Most of us are former teachers and we all know that you and your family take on such a huge commitment just by being a teacher,” she said. “Now to add this extra stress with so much unknown and the personal risk, it’s important to acknowledge that we recognize what we’re asking of them.”
A group of more than 100 demonstrators gathered outside district headquarters to protest the reopening, many of them Pinellas County teachers wearing masks and bearing signs with phrases like “save lives – keep schools closed.” They want to see school start virtually this year and push back in-person learning until the county goes 14 days without new COVID-19 cases, something that hasn’t happened since the state began recording cases in mid March.
Council member Rene Flowers said she has “serious concerns” about reopening schools during such uncertain times.
“We just can’t guarantee the safety of anyone through this,” she said. “I’m not in support of exposing our staff and students to further harm.”
While she feels the school reopening plan is well thought out, Cane shares Flowers’ fears.
“If we don’t feel it’s safe to let parents come in and have PTA meetings, how can we expect them to feel safe sending their children into the building?” she asked. “It’s incomprehensible.”
Cane also said that she’s concerned that teachers and staff members don’t have the same amount of choice that students and families do.
“Where is our choice in the matter? There isn’t a lot,” she said. “Do I default on my mortgage or do I take care of my family?”
Christie Bruner, a parent of three daughters attending Pinellas County Schools, said she had a greater understanding of the learning options after watching the workshop. She also said she was encouraged to hear that department of health recommendations will come into play when determining a start date and expressed relief that a specific date isn’t the driving decision behind reopening.
“It was nice to hear that the start date may be flexible, as that was my main objective since it had been done in other districts,” Bruner said. “It would have been great for the district to communicate that objective before today so parents wouldn’t think they had to choose one of the three options to start at the predetermined date.”
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